Archeological digs often unearth some amazing artifacts which provide a rare glimpse into the past and how generations before us lived. But could a two-thousand-year-old date tree seed still sprout?
For thousands of years, the Judean Date Tree was an invaluable food source in the desert of the Kingdom of Judah, as well as providing shelter and shade for much of that community. Vast forests of date palms covered an area some seven miles wide, with trees stretching up to the sky some 80 feet high along the Jordan River Valley from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the shores of the Dead Sea in the south.
During a 1960s archaeological excavation in Masada, seeds of the Judean Date Tree were discovered buried deep in the hot, dry soil. They were completely undisturbed inside a thick clay pot sealed tightly from the elements. Lab testing based on tiny particles scraped from the seeds surface revealed their origin to be between 155 BC and 64 CE.
The seeds were brought to Bar-Ilan University in Tel-Aviv where they were preserved for 40 years before being touched again. Then in early 2000, Dr. Elaine Solowey, an agriculture expert whose job consists of finding new, useful crops for the dry Middle Eastern climate, was asked by a colleague to see if the seeds would germinate. Their hope was to show the physical endurance of the tree as well as discover any medicinal potential that may have been lost from that time.
She got to work. First, the seeds were soaked in hot water to help with absorption before being bathed in nutrients and fertilizer made from seaweed, then planted in soil where the waiting game began. Then in 2005, she noticed a crack in the soil. “I couldn’t believe it,” she told National Geographic later that year. “I could see it was a date shoot.”
The plant was named Methuselah, after Noah’s grandfather—the oldest man in the Bible.
By 2010, the tree stood 6.5 feet tall. “I have a date plant,” Solowey told The New York Times. “If it lives, it will be years before we eat any dates. And that’s if it’s female. There’s a 50–50 chance. And if it’s a male, it will just be a curiosity.”
In 2011 it did finally flower, but it was revealed that Methuselah was a male so there wouldn’t be any fruit. Not willing to give up, they mated him with several varieties of modern female date trees. “We got fruit and some 50% ancient date trees,” says Solowey. Humans might soon be tasting dates from biblical times.
“Within a 2,000-year-old seed, a germ of life was still alive,” wrote Jane Goodall in her 2013 book Seeds of Hope, “waiting, waiting, waiting for the right conditions to wake, like Rip Van Winkle, into a strange and different world.”